‘Maniac’ is a retro-futuristic romp through the subconscious
“Maniac,” Netflix’s retro-futuristic rumination on subconscious love, comes from creator Patrick Somerville (a novelist whose TV writing includes episodes of “The Leftovers”) and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) bearing some of the telltale hipster traits of boutique filmmaking. There’s a fusion here between modern melancholia and those romps where potential lovers keep encountering one another in skips through time, which sounds tedious but works somewhat splendidly, once the series gets going.
Style is slightly ahead of substance here, as Somerville and Fukunaga spend an impressive amount of energy introducing us to an imagined quasi-
contemporary society that clings to a thrift-store aesthetic, its technology stunted somewhere around the Atari years. In this glum, beige-computer, future/past, we meet Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone), who both volunteer to participate in a top-secret, three-day drug trial at a highly guarded facility called Nebderdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech (NPB).
Owen, who has previously been diagnosed as schizophrenic and ostracized from his morally lacking family, is seeking a last grasp at relief from his demons. Annie, carrying around unresolved grief and a sense of guilt over the death of her younger sister (“Ozark’s” Julia Garner), has found relief by knocking herself with one of NPB’s psychotropic drugs, and she sneaks into the trial hoping to score more of it.
Owen and Annie are assigned to a test group that will be dosed with three drugs in three days, while NPB’s artificially intelligent computer monitors their subconscious activities. The trial is overseen by an officious scientist, Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), who is under great pressure from her superiors to deliver on the trial’s promise: a cure for mental illness or other afflictions of the mind, such as grief or depression.
The computer, however, is heartsick over a recent death in the lab. It starts to act on its own grief, sending Dr. Fujita to track down its creator Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) to try to keep the experiment on track. For reasons that would complicate my already bizarre recapping effort, the computer melds Owen and Annie’s subconscious experiences together, which means they are essentially having the same dreams.
And here is where “Maniac’s” real fun begins, as Owen and Annie find themselves as different people in different times — and Hill and Stone get to play with a variety of characters, accents and appearances. In one dream they are a married Long Island couple living in a 1980s-like suburb trying to thwart exotic animal thieves. In another scenario, as NPB’s scientists try to separate their subconscious threads, Owen is a 1940s private-eye and Annie comes and goes as the computer fights to keep her in the scenario. Other dreams play like out science-fiction B-movies and Tolkien-esque misadventures in a Middle Earth.
Outside the lab, Mantleray and Fujita grow more desperate to fix the computer, bringing in Mantleray’s estranged mother, a renowned pop psychologist named Dr. Greta Mantleray, played by Sally Field, who seems to have an absolute hoot as a character who matches wits with her son’s creation and appears in some of the subjects’ dreams.
In fact, whatever downbeat message “Maniac” might have intended to convey about pharmaceutical attempts to treat the human condition gets lost in the fact that a good time is pretty much being had by all — Hill and Stone are both terrifically capable at conveying the series’s many moods, while Theroux looks especially grateful to be hamming it up after so much deeply furrowed frowning in “The Leftovers.” Viewers even get the pleasant experience of seeing our old friend Allyce Beasley (Agnes DiPesto on “Moonlighting”) as one of Owen and Annie’s fellow test subjects.
There is a sense toward the end that Somerville, Fukunaga, et al. are not sure whether they want to leave things on a note of romance or caution; as such, “Maniac’s” ending doesn’t quite match the allure or originality of its beginning. There’s also a sense, once again, that we are in a years’ long process of figuring out the uncharted territory that separates a film from a series — could this have been a two-hour movie? Or does it gain something as 10 episodes, varying in length from 26 to 45 minutes each?
We keep being told that audiences will eventually decide and supercomputers will notice whether we keep watching through the entire series and aggregate the data accordingly. Which means, in a way, that Netflix is making lab rats of us all.
Hank Stuever is a writer
for The Washington Post.